The trouble with al Qaeda-centric media coverage

By James Le Grice

Ten years ago, al Qaeda became a household name. The 9/11 terrorist attacks were history’s deadliest and were the catalyst of the decade’s biggest story: the ongoing Global War on Terrorism. But the western media coverage of that story has not been so global. It has focused almost exclusively on the al Qaeda vs the West narrative, set predominantly in the Middle East, South Asia, and occasionally in European capitals. But what about the rest of the story?

We hear much about Afghanistan. We hear less about Xinjiang, a western Chinese territory where the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a party involved in the Afghanistan War, is waging a terror campaign against Chinese civilians in order to take over the province.

We hear much about Iraq. We hear less about Southern Thailand, where multiple al Qaeda-esque organisations commit a near weekly slaughter, frequently killing children, to establish an Islamic state.

We hear much about Israel (the perpetrators of terrorism there may be independent of al Qaeda but their conflict is a core part of al Qaeda’s narrative). We hear less about northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram’s war to impose its version of Shariah has had an exceptionally gruesome summer of regular bombings and shooting sprees.

We occasionally hear about Yemen. We less occasionally hear about Dagestan, the Caucasian republic where Jamaat Shariat is killing Russian security officials, Orthodox Christian priests, Sufi Muslims, and anyone else who defies them as the “legitimate authority of Dagestan”.

One might argue that these examples are less relevant, hence the media pays them less attention. It is true that the aforementioned terror campaigns are highly provincial with violence concentrated in specific locales, therefore lacking the international scope and high casualty figures of the al Qaeda storyline. But they are most certainly relevant to understanding the full story, as the perpetrators share very similar objectives and similar means to achieve them as the perpetrators of 9/11.

The main problem with al Qaeda-centric media coverage is that awareness of an organisation, and those most tightly connected to it, has come at the expense of awareness of relation. When al Qaeda hogs the spotlight and related terror groups are left in the dark, naturally it is less easy to spot the common ground between them. The most telling sign of this is that after ten years of War on Terror coverage there is still not a universally used collective term to label the terrorists that committed the 9/11 attacks.

Commonly used terminology such as “Muslim extremists” or “jihadists” is terribly vague and can apply to a much broader range of terror organisations. “Islamists”, adherents to the ideology that Islam is a political system as well as a religion, is the best term used, but does not recognise that groups akin to al Qaeda also see Islam as the basis of a nation and have ambitions of territorial domination. “Nationalist Islamists” would really work better.

The lack of awareness of the broader story has worked to al Qaeda’s favour, when one considers that propaganda is the most destructive Weapon of Mass Destruction in a terrorist’s arsenal. Whenever Osama bin Laden released a video or audio tape, he could not only rest assured that it would get played on every evening news programme, get transcribed in every major paper, and be analysed by high-ranking Middle East experts on all the major politics shows, he could also rest assured that people would repeat the message without considering it propaganda.

The regularly broadcasted bin Laden/al Qaeda argument argues that their violence is purely reactionary, and revenge for US support of Israel, US alliances with Arab dictators, European colonialism, and western military action in “Muslim lands”. This argument not only gets repeated by radical clerics intent on turning troubled young men to jihad, but also by politicians, journalists, artists, anti-war campaigners, respected figures with not a terrorist bone in their body and no love for al Qaeda. But the argument can only work if you ignore all the instances of relevant terrorism unconnected with the al Qaeda vs the west storyline, something the narrow focus of the media coverage makes easy.

Though al Qaeda’s propaganda has never managed to generate the mass movement bin Laden desired to establish a 21st century caliphate, it has certainly reached a wider audience and penetrated deeper than the propaganda of groups lacking western media attention. Not even Jemaah Islamiyah, the group responsible of the 2002 Bali bombings, which has operations in the Philippines, Malaysia, and South Thailand has been able to get itself heard on the same level. Better media coverage is perhaps one reason why ETIM recently branched out beyond Xinjiang, and attempted to carry out a bombing in Norway last year. Even though they failed, they still made headlines.

How then, can the media create a better state of awareness of the wider story? As mentioned, there needs to be a universally used term to accurately refer to the specific class of terrorism that al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Hamas, Jemaah Islamiyah, etc belong to. The term must not be too general nor too case specific.

“Nationalist Islamists” conveys the common mentality of the organisations in question, i.e. Islamic identity is a national identity, superceding ethnic and patriotic loyalties, and an Islamic political system is the only acceptable system to govern this nation. From there it is easy to establish a framework of common ground between Nationalist Islamists in which one can insert names and places as appropriate, for example.

The end goal is to dominate a territory defined as “Muslim land” and enforce the organisation’s own interpretation of Islamic law as the binding law of the land. The means to achieve this objective involves translating the idea into a populist movement. To do so, the organisation must foster polarization among the people of this territory (Easier to do for those groups operating in territories home to existing separatist conflicts and inter-ethnic tension) establishing a sense of “Muslims” vs “the other”.

“The other” constitutes anyone who stands in the way of the organisation achieving its goal or who would present a challenge to authority later on, e.g. representatives of the present authority, members of other religions, Muslims who disagree with the organisation’s interpretation of the religion. Then demonize “the other” and inspire “the Muslims” to violence against them until they give in to the organisation’s demands.

With specific terminology and a recognised framework established, the media will be better able to create awareness of the full story, give coverage to relevant non al Qaeda terror campaigns, and thereby limit the ability of any single terrorist group to spread its propaganda.

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